I grabbed documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”) and former Lance Armstrong teammate Jonathan Vaughters at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about the long-gestating doc "The Armstrong Lie," which will be released by Sony Pictures Classics. (Here's Indiewire's coverage.)
Gibney who won an Oscar for torture expose “Taxi to the Dark Side," was approached to make a film on Lance Armstrong's comeback Tour de France race in 2009. “It started out as an inspirational comeback story when Lance Armstrong decided to come back to cycling in 2008 after being in retirement," he told me. "Folks at Sony, Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, wanted to see if I’d be interested in doing a documentary that would follow him during this comeback year. I’d certainly heard the rumblings and rumors about doping in the past, but I was interested in this comeback story and I thought I’d go along for the ride."
Gibney thought he had finished the film in late 2010, but then the Armstrong story took a turn as former teammates began to come forward, and there was a grand jury federal investigation with possible criminal indictments. So Gibney sat on the film that was narrated by Matt Damon, who was to star in Sony's Lance Armstrong biopic. "We put the film aside and waited ‘til the smoke cleared," Gibney said. "And then I got a call from Lance Armstrong and he said, 'all this is true, I’ve been lying to you and I apologize.'"
So Gibney and Armstrong sat down again to try and make things right. "So that film became a new film and I had to put myself in the middle of the film in order to explain what had happened," said Gibney. "To go back into the film that I had shot, I realized that I’d shot something pretty interesting which was really the anatomy of a lie.”
How does he feel now about Armstrong--they got fairly chummy during the Tour. “On a day to day basis, I like Lance," he said. "But over time one of the things I’ve learned is that liking somebody is not the same thing as approving of what they do. I was definitely drawn into Lance’s orbit and I became a fan as I acknowledge in the film. I liked him and I liked going along for the ride. Over time, particularly when the secret was revealed, I could reckon that I could like the guy and at the same time be wildly pissed off that I had become part of an elaborate PR fraud and be pissed off that he had looked me in the face and lied to me. One of the reasons I decided to put myself in the film was to explore that process that almost every fan goes through, particularly people who saw Lance in this very inspirational way and then were deeply disappointed.”
He hasn't yet shown Armstrong the film. “I told Lance that he couldn’t see the film until the public had seen it," he said. "I didn’t want anybody to think that Lance had any influence over the final shape of the film but he’s likely to see it this week. I did call him to say that it’s being called ‘The Armstrong Lie,’ he wasn't happy about it.”
Vaughters admitted that he wondered if Gibney was "going to be deceived all the way through... if Lance is going to be able to use that charm and get it out the other side with the documentary remaining mainly positive. What I noticed in the final version of the film is that a lot of the clips you got in 2009 that at that point in time through your lens and 99% of the public’s lens would have been seen as a very honest moment with Lance but when you go back and look at it now you see what those of us who are in the cycling industry saw, and that was a very deceptive person.”